Something I read a while back somewhere in Helsingin Sanomat (the top newspaper in Finland) bothered me. I don’t think I had this weblog back then, and it may have been one of the ideas that inspired me to think I should start one. Of course, leaving this late like this means I can’t find my sources any more. But they’re not really important; the ideas are what are, and the comments I’m reacting to are just examples of them.
It was around the time we were having the SlutWalks. As I remember it, someone was interviewed about them and expressed her opinion that regardless of how women are dressed, men should be able to control themselves. This was of course in support of the idea of the walks.
Do you think that sounds like a good notion? Technically, of course, it’s a true statement. But it expressed an attitude that’s got something wrong with it. (I’m not analysing the person who said it, but this attitude can very clearly be read into this statement.)
Think about other crimes. If you see a magnificent television set in a store window, and you absolutely want to have it, but you don’t have enough money at the moment… Do we say that you must be able to control yourself, regardless, and not break the window and run away with the TV? Do we often have temptations like this in ordinary life that we have to struggle against?
If your coworker is really annoying you to the point that you feel it would be satisfying to kill them just to make them shut up… Do we have to tell you to control yourself and not murder them on the spot? Have you often given in to such a temptation?
Obviously not, in either case. Because the deeds would be so blatantly wrong most people would not contemplate them seriously, and because they would be extremely stupid and contrary to self-interest, too. Certainly there’s always someone who snaps and does something extreme, and those who are already accustomed to crime. But people usually don’t do things like that. And if someone had to fight constant temptations to do something like this, their behaviour would soon land them in an institution or at least an endless cycle of prison sentences. If people were like that, society would collapse.
So what’s with implying “men” could commit rape just because they aren’t making enough effort to control themselves? It’s hardly an “oops”. It’s not procrastinating while you’re supposed to be working, or smoking another cigarette when you were supposed to quit, or eating too much junk food. (Though again there’s always bound to be some weird individual who’ll do anything you could say normal people don’t.) It is, in fact, already a given in most civilised surroundings that no man would dream of inflicting horrible violence on a woman just because he’s attracted to her physically. As with blatant theft and murder, it’s just out of the question. Supposedly even other criminals in prison hate rapists.
Rape certainly happens, also in “civilised” countries. However, where it’s common are clearly situations with which there is clearly something wrong, such as wars or pathologically patriarchal cultures. But one still hears a lot of rhetoric to the effect that it’s all about men’s sexual desires. In fact, couldn’t the “don’t dress like a slut” thing have this element too? Answer: It might, but frankly I don’t know, so I’ll say no more on that.
Another more extreme example I remember from way back was someone on a discussion board defending some brand of Islamic philosophy about why women have to be covered up well enough that they don’t arouse men. Because, you know, then they might invite rape. I would be anything but surprised if this was the very same ideology that causes rape victims to be blamed somewhere in the world.
Well, here’s some news for everyone: Human beings aren’t dogs in heat that go around sexually assaulting the legs of strangers. Nor are just male human beings. A man (or woman for that matter) who specifically for lack of self-control went around assaulting others, in whatever way, without the society specifically endorsing it, would be some kind of a pathological nutcase or monster. Most of the time someone does that, it’s because they’ve got an excuse. So don’t give them that, damn it. Most men won’t take this feeble excuse in a nice modern society anyway, but it can’t be healthy to maintain this rhetoric. (And who knows — not me –, what the motivation is for those outside “most”.) And there’s nothing to keep men from taking the excuse for milder sexism and disrespectful behaviour as long as it’s maintained men are at least sometimes supposed to look at women as sex objects, which is part of the same general discourse.
Besides, it’s offensive. Almost nothing infuriates me as much as disregarding a person’s individuality in favour of putting them in a group stereotype. So “men” are like that? Thanks a lot for insulting me and some of my most basic values without ever meeting me. (Still not accusing the original commenter who spurred this article — like I said, I won’t presume to interpret her real thoughts from such a brief comment.) It’s as bad when the people belonging to a group take its negative stereotypes on themselves. We’re men, so we’re supposed to be insensitive, crude oafs? No, you’re just being pathetic jerks. Stop taking the easy wrong way out and think for yourselves what you should be like.
The problem is really this discourse that in practice tries to oppress both men by painting them as idiots or animals rather than responsible human beings, and women by saying they have to accept it.
In sum: You shouldn’t say obvious things as if they aren’t. Men don’t have to “control themselves” in order not to rape women. They can just elect to not do it, and will be expected to. If you say otherwise, you’re being insulting and granting excuses that are far from being deserved.
“To all those men who don’t think the rape jokes are a problem” (added 12/2011)